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Canada women shooting for 5th straight Olympic hockey gold

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Four years is a long time to wait for a second chance. For some, the chance for golden redemption has been much longer.

The United States women’s hockey team has not won Olympic gold since the sport was added to the games in 1998. The Americans have since watched their biggest rival – Canada – take home four straight gold medals.

The drought has hurt most since 2014, when the Americans blew a 2-0 lead in the gold medal game and had the puck clank off the post, just missing an empty-net goal before Canada tied it with 54.6 seconds left in regulation. Marie-Philip Poulin scored again for a 3-2 overtime win , keeping the gold medal with the country that created the sport.

”Not everyone was there in Sochi,” U.S. forward Hilary Knight said. ”We’ve got players who suffered that heartbreak once, maybe twice, and we’ve got players who’ve never felt that. They’re going to play fearless and on their toes regardless. I think all of us are there to win.”

The Americans have won four straight world championships, the last in overtime last April in Michigan . Yet Canada just doesn’t lose in the Olympics . The world’s dominant hockey powers meet in pool play Feb. 15 in a game scheduled so North America can watch at 10:10 p.m. EST on Feb. 14. If the Pyeongchang Games go as four of the past five Olympics have, they will meet again Feb. 22 with gold at stake once more.

”We’ve come up short the last two Olympics, and our ultimate goal is just play our best,” said American Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a two-time silver medalist. ”If we can do that, we truly believe we can come out on top.”

Things to know about women’s hockey at the Pyeongchang Games:

U.S. DROUGHT

Since winning it all in 1998 in Nagano, settling for silver – and bronze, in 2006 – has been a source of angst for the United States. Katie Crowley was on that inaugural U.S. team and said the drought has been surprising considering the quality of players dressing for the Americans. Crowley, now coach at Boston College, said if she had the answer to what went wrong she’d have three gold medals herself. Now she says it’s up to the current roster.

”Hopefully, they can do something about it,” Crowley said.

PRE-OLYMPIC TUNEUP

The Americans and Canadians played eight games during the fall. The United States won three of the first four, including two to take their third straight Four Nations Cup title . But Canada and coach Laura Schuler were experimenting with a roster of 28 then. Canada won the final four games, with two decided in overtime and one a shutout.

”It’s a good benchmark to see how we’re progressing,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said. ”It’s extremely tough competition, and I suspect they feel the same.”

Said Schuler: ”Every time we play them, we learn what we’re good at. And we learn where we need to continue to improve.”

GOALIE EDGE

The edge in net goes to Canada: goaltender Shannon Szabados is going for her third gold and Genevieve Lacasse won her first in 2014. Lacasse also had the only shutout during the US-Canada exhibition tour .

”Shannon brings a calmness to our team, for sure,” Schuler said. ”She’s a big physical presence in the net, and obviously has a great history.”

The Americans are bringing a trio of goalies making their Olympic debuts in Alex Rigsby, Nicole Hensley and Maddie Rooney. Stauber played goalie himself and was the goaltender coach before being named head coach last May.

”We have trust in every single one of them, no matter who’s in net,” said defenseman Kacey Bellamy, a two-time silver medalist.

NORTH AMERICAN UPSET?

Canada has won 20 straight Olympic games since losing gold in Nagano. The United States is the top-ranked team in the world – with Canada a close second – while the rest of the world works to close the gap . Finland is No. 3 after beating Canada 4-3 in April in the preliminary round at the 2017 world championships.

KOREAN COOPERATION

South Korea coach Sarah Murray may have the biggest challenge with officials working to add North Korean athletes to her team, 22nd in the world. Although the country has had little women’s hockey success, the South Koreans hope to ride home-ice advantage to a victory – any victory – in the preliminary round. South Korea is in Group B with Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. The South Koreans help open pool play Feb. 10 against Switzerland – sixth in the world.

AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Where will Mark Hunter go after leaving Maple Leafs?

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The hockey world hasn’t heard from Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter since the team promoted Kyle Dubas to GM last week. Well, on Tuesday, the team announced that the two sides have mutually agreed to part ways.

“Following extensive discussions with Mark, he and the Toronto Maple Leafs have mutually agreed to part ways,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “I’d like to sincerely thank Mark for everything he’s done for this organization over the last four years and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Many speculated that Hunter wasn’t happy about being passed over for the general manager opening that eventually went to Dubas, and this kind of confirms that theory. During his tenure with the Leafs, Hunter was in charge of the pro scouting, amateur scouting and player evaluation. He played a big part in Toronto’s rapid rebuild.

So now, Hunter is free to pursue other opportunities outside of the Leafs organization. But according to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, he can’t join another team until after the NHL Entry Draft and free agency. That seems fair considering he has a lot of intel into Toronto’s off-season plans and because he’s departing with term left on his contract.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hunter decides to join forces with former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who officially became the Islanders president of hockey ops on Tuesday morning. After all, current Isles GM Garth Snow is on thin ice, so there could be an opening for a new general manager in the near future. Assuming they move on from Snow, Hunter could be in line to get the job if he decides to go there. If Snow sticks around, he could still join the team in a different capacity.

If things don’t work out with the Islanders, Hunter could always join another NHL team with a front-office opening. Getting a GM gig might be a little difficult considering there aren’t any more openings right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get a good gig elsewhere. The Montreal Canadiens have already made some changes to their management group by allowing Rick Dudley to move on to Carolina. Could Hunter be a fit there? It would be a heck of a statement for him to go from Toronto to Montreal.

Of course, if Hunter doesn’t like the NHL offers on the table, there’s also a possibility that he could return to the OHL with the London Knights. When the Leafs came calling in 2014, Hunter was serving as part owner and general manager of the Knights (he remains a co-owner of the team with his brother, Dale, and Basil McRae).

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Islanders hire Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations (Update)

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It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

UPDATE: The Islanders made the news official on Tuesday morning, with Lamoriello getting the title of president of hockey operations. “He will have full authority over all hockey matters with the organization” was also noted in the press release. Farewell, Garth?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: How Reaves became a playoff hero; Which non-playoff teams can make 2019 postseason?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final is good for all hockey fans and it’s a great story. (Vice Sports)

• No American team has sold for merchandise than the Golden Knights. Stores couldn’t keep the Western Conference Champion hats and t-shirts on the shelves. (Vegas Review-Journal)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was furious that Caps forward Tom Wilson refused to fight Jamie Oleksiak after Wilson broke Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw with a hit. “When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Ryan Reaves has had to adjust his game to stick around in the NHL. Things haven’t always worked out for him, but he eventually became a hero for the Golden Knights in the third round. (ESPN)

• If the Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas casinos would lose a ton of money. (MLive.com)

• Hockey Graphs looks at whether or not the NHL has become more competitive by analyzing advanced statistics between 2007-08 and 2017-18. (Hockey Graphs)

• The St. Louis Blues’ home rink will have a new name going into next season. For the next 15 years, the arena will be named “Enterprise Center”. (NHL.com/Blues)

• Down Goes Brown looks at which non-playoff teams could make it to the postseason next year and which ones could even get to the conference final. (Sportsnet)

• Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis has one year remaining on his current deal. What will his next contract look like? Based on some comparables, expect him to earn at least $5.5 million. (On the Forecheck)

• A young boy who suffered serious injuries in a school bus crash received an incredible gift from the New York Rangers that included a stick signed by Henrik Lundqvist. (NBC New York)

• The IIHF has voted to allow both the men’s and women’s Chinese hockey teams to take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (China.org)

• Have you ever dreamed of being an NHL scout? Well, take a look at what scouts look for when assessing potential talent. (The Hockey News)

• Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, have signed head coach Dallas Eakins to a multi-year contract extension. (San Diego Gulls)

• Despite struggling at the end of the season, Devan Dubnyk had another solid year for the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.